The Perennial Plant Association chose Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’ as the 2020 Perennial of the Year. Each year, this honor is given to a perennial that meets these criteria: ease of culture, multiple-season interest, suitability to a wide range of climates, low maintenance requirements, pest and disease resistance.

Spotted in a Japanese department store nursery, brought to the U.S. and named by plant collector and photographer, Barry Yinger, 'Sun King' has been called one of the most amazing new perennial introductions of the last decade.

If you're looking for a unique shade plant, this golden beauty certainly fits the bill. The large compound leaves up to 3 feet long will be brighter yellow in part sun, and more chartreuse or lime green in full shade. After blooming, the tiny white flowers produce deep purple-black, inedible berries.

This bold anchor plant for shady locations combines beautifully with ferns, hostas and astilbe and is very cold-hardy.

Aralia Sun King in a container

(photo mine)

It's All About That Color

Aralia Sun King in garden bed

Finely-toothed arching leaves emerge bright yellow and retain their color all season. Clusters of tiny white flowers in summer are followed by purple berries. Birds love them, but they're not for human consumption.

The foliage will retain the golden color if given at least 2-3 hours of sun each day. The more shade, the more lime-green the foliage becomes.

This deciduous, fast-growing golden Japanese spikenard is the perfect complement for hostas and heucheras.

sun king in container with cat

(photo mine)

Characteristics

An excellent complement for woodland perennials, ‘Sun King’ emerges in the mid-spring. Bright gold leaves top contrasting reddish brown stems. The plant quickly forms a large clump of foliage that is very deer-resistant. Many plantsmen believe it will eventually grow larger than 3 feet. Extra-large and quite fast-growing, this aralia needs sufficient space to spread out. The plant is also tolerant of wet soil.

In mid-to-late summer, racemes of tiny white flowers appear, followed by deep purple-black, inedible berries. Like most aralias, the flowers attract honeybees and are also heavily visited by other pollinators as well.

Aralias often self-sow where the berries drop, making them fairly easy to naturalize into colonies.

Sun King in garden with purple flowers for contrast

Grow It

The plant can be propagated by both seeds and stem tip cuttings. It prefers to be propagated by taking cuttings in early spring and using a section that has a bit of the harder woody stem still attached.

'Sun King' will suffer if it is not kept watered during long periods of drought.

Although it looks like a shrub, being an herbaceous perennial, it will die back in the fall and re-emerge in the spring. It is best grown in well-drained soils and benefits from compost being incorporated into the planting medium at planting time.

No serious insect or disease problems affect it, and deer won't bother it. Recommended for USDA Zones 3-9.

Sun  King with lavender

(photo mine)

You Can Even Eat It

The young stems and root shoots are edible, hence the common name mountain asparagus, and have a long history of consumption in Asia. Also known as udo in Japan, aralia is one of the Japanese sansai (mountain herbs). These are usually foraged from the wild and often used to make tempura dishes.

New shoots are blanched and eaten as a vegetable. The young shoots have a strong, distinct aromatic flavor. In Korea, the dried root of the plant has been used as a medicine.

aralia harvested as a vegetable

(photo : 한산도수산 / CC BY 2.0 KR (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/kr/deed.en)

Plant Care

'Sun King' prefers moist, fertile, and well-drained humus soils. Protect it from strong winds that can damage the large foliage.

No pruning is necessary, but in colder climates it usually dies back to the ground in winter. Dead stems can be removed once it buds out again in the spring.

This plant will grow in sandy or clay soils that are neutral, alkaline or acid. It likes average moisture. Bloom time is late summer.

No serious insect or disease problems affect the plant. But watch for aphids, mealybugs, spider mites, slugs and snails. Leaf spot may appear.

You may already be growing this great plant, but if not, it’s an outstanding large perennial most gardeners could easily utilize in a bed or container.